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Merrill Sets $6 Billion Buyback

Merrill Lynch (MER) set its $6 billion stock buyback.

Suez (SZE) and Gaz de France are to merge. Suez will pay an exceptional dividend of EUR1.25 billion to its shareholders; then, Gaz de France shares are to be exchanged for Suez shares one-for-one. The Wall Street Journal sizes the French energy companies' merger at ??32 billion ($37.98 billion) and says it will create one of the world's largest utilities, worth more than ??70 billion.

Lowe's (LOW) posts 87 cents vs. 64 cents fourth quarter earnings per share (EPS) on a 7.8% same-store sales rise and 26% total sales rise. It sees 92 cents to 94 cents first quarter EPS, $1.22 to $1.25 in the second quarter, and $4.03 to $4.13 in fiscal year 2007.

KeySpan (KSE) agreed to be acquired by National Grid (NGG) in a $7.3 billion deal, at $42 cash per KeySpan share. (AMZN) acquires, the retailer of fashion-forward apparel, shoes, and accessories for women, for an undisclosed amount.

Vodafone Group (VOD) says fiscal year 2007 comparable-sales growth will be between 5% and 6.5%, vs. its estimates for 6% to 9% growth in fiscal year 2006. It expects to write down EUR 23 billion to EUR 28 billion of assets, mostly on goodwill it took on from its acquisition of Mannesmann in 2000.

General Electric (GE) is to commence the secondary public offering of 71 million Genworth Financial (GNW) shares. Concurrently, Genworth Financial also will repurchase 15 million Class B shares directly from GE. Upon completion of the transactions, GE will not own any shares of Genworth Financial.

Lowe's (LOW) posts 87 cents vs. 64 cents fourth quarter earnings per share (EPS) on a 7.8% same-store sales rise and 26% total sales rise. It sees 92 cents to 94 cents firts quarter EPS, $1.22 to $1.25 in the second quarter, and $4.03 to $4.13 in fiscal year 2007.

Hormel Foods (HRL) posts 50 cents vs. 46 cents first quarter EPS on an 11% sales rise. It raises second quarter EPS (GAAP) guidance to 42 cents to 48 cents and fiscal year 2006 to $1.90 to $2.00.

WPP Group (WPPGY) posts 36% higher 2005 pretax profit on a 26% revenue rise. It expects to achieve operating margins of 14.5% in 2006 and 15% in 2007. It says legal action against the former country manager in Italy has begun.

Chiron (CHIR) is to extend delivery terms for the stockpile of H5N1 bulk influenza vaccine for the US government. Separately, it inks a supply contract with the UK govt for pre-pandemic influenza vaccine for a stockpile based on the H5N1 avian influenza strain.

Platinum Underwriters Holdings (PTP) posts $1.94 fourth quarter loss vs. $1.03 loss as loss on hurricane claims offset a 3.7% total revenue rise.

Newmont Mining (NEM) posts 16 cents vs. 34 cents fourth quarter EPS from continuing operations as industry-wide cost pressures and the impact of several non-cash accounting write-downs offset an 8.9% revenue rise.

Cablevision Systems (CVC) posts 17 cents fourth quarter EPS vs. 60 cents loss from continuing operations on 13% higher consolidated revenue.

Pacific Internet (PCNTF) intends to make a voluntary conditional cash general offer to acquire Pacific Internet. If it makes the offer, it is expected to be $8.25 cash for each Pacific Internet share, subject to certain conditions.

Novastar Financial (NFI) posts 89 cents vs. 65 cents fourth quarter core EPS despite a 1.6% drop in non-conforming loan production. It says 2005 is a challenging year with significant margin compression and believes 2006 dividends will total at least $5.60 per share.

Avon Products (AVP) reportedly won approval to return to its favored direct-selling model in China after a 7-year hiatus.

Stewart & Stevenson Services (SVC) agrees to be acquired by Armor Holdings in a $755 million deal, at $35 cash per Stewart & Stevenson share.

Dana (DCN) says it continues talks with banks and financial institutions regarding financing alternatives, and expects a resolution within the next two weeks.

OYO Geospace (OYOG) BP Exploration enters into $14.2 million sales contract with OYO for a seabed data acquisition system for reservoir monitoring operations in the Azerbaijan sector of the Caspian Sea.

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